To celebrate the release of her debut novel, we are pleased to present an interview with Alex Clare, author of He’s Gone. Read an excerpt from Chapter Two of He’s Gone on our site here, and read below for Alex’s fascinating thoughts on the writing process, her inspirations, and what’s next for DI Robyn Bailley.
First of all, congratulations on your publishing debut! What was your personal journey towards publication?
Thank you and thanks for inviting me here. It’s great to be in such impressive company. With He’s Gone, I started writing on the 8th of March 2013 (yes, I’m the sort of person who likes to log this sort of thing). The contract was signed almost exactly three years to the day later after thirteen drafts. I am lucky enough to be a member of a writing group who provided regular critique as the book developed and to know other aspiring authors who were able to beta read the manuscript for me. I was also very fortunate to get a mentor through the Womentoring Project (now sadly defunct) and to be matched to the fabulous Fanny Blake, an author and editor, who gave me so much good advice. The choice of going with an independent publisher like Impress Books was an easy one as I get input into all of the aspects leading up to publication, which has been fascinating.
What or who influenced you to start writing?
I can’t remember not writing. I have a memory from when I was about eight of entering a local writing competition. I didn’t win but someone read out my story which I thought was wonderful. I think that was when I first realised being a writer could be fun.
In your acknowledgements, you mention that He’s Gone was inspired by the Equal Marriage Act debate in the UK. Are there any other inspirations that helped you create this novel?
In 1993, a toddler disappeared from a shopping centre in Bootle, Merseyside. A vital clue was a CCTV image of the boy with two older children. It could be such an innocent image, the toddler hand-in- hand with one of the older boys but when the youngster’s body was found two days later, the picture took on a chilling aspect. In 2013, when I’d already developed the character of Robyn, one of the killers was granted a new identity. This got a lot of publicity and that snapshot of the little boy being led away became one of the opening scenes of the book. On a more positive note, I was lucky enough to meet several trans people and hear their stories. Their determination to live the lives they wanted was truly inspirational.
Reading the book, it’s quite apparent that the title He’s Gone applies not only to the case of the missing child, but to DI Robyn herself as she adjusts to life as a woman. How much influence did you have on the title? Do you feel it reflects Robyn’s journey as she learns to express herself authentically?
It wasn’t my working title: it does seem to be an unwritten rule that an author’s title has to be changed! I chose He’s Gone after discussion with Impress Books and loved the double meaning. It also reflects that everyone Robyn interacts with has to come to terms with the change too.
Robyn’s first day back at work is fraught with anxiety as those around her pass judgment on her decision to become a woman. What research went into creating this authentic reaction for both Robyn and those around her?
My favourite form of research is talking to people, so I’ve listened to people’s stories. There is also an active trans community on Twitter, who share examples of the experiences they have and how these make them feel. I have tried to reflect these scenarios honestly.
Robyn’s character arc in the novel is hugely transformative. Did you ever find it difficult to put Robyn through the experiences she has—from a difficult first day at work to blatant transphobia?
Part of Robyn’s role is to hold up a mirror to others’ behaviour. The blatant discrimination is something we can all condemn: what I wanted to show was how some of the smaller incidents (especially when someone appears to be supportive) can be most hurtful. Robyn knew the journey would be difficult and part of her early discovery is that things might have been easier if she had tackled some difficult decisions head on. I hope it shows the value of facing your fears.
What was your favorite chapter or section to write and why?
You try not to have favourites amongst your characters but I can’t help it. I do have a real soft spot for Tracey, the Superintendent’s PA. She is the one person in the story who is prepared to ask difficult questions. When I tested the chapter where Tracey sees the person she knew as Roger being Robyn for the first time, I wanted to create a sense of someone really trying to understand something that is utterly alien to her and in doing so, it helps the reader to understand too. When I tested this chapters with readers, half loved Tracey for her boldness, half hated her but all agreed she should stay.
Did you learn anything from writing your book? What surprised you?
What has surprised me is how the profile of trans people has risen since I started writing in 2013. Popular TV shows now feature trans characters and we’ve heard personal stories from Caitlyn Jenner in the US and Kellie Maloney in the UK. There is a long way to go though.
How do you keep yourself on track and focused when you sit down to write?
I have the perfect writing routine. Onto the commuter train, open my laptop and write solidly for 45 minutes (that’s where I’m typing this). It’s a perfect environment for writing: no one wants to talk, it helps the journey pass quickly and if you run short of inspiration, there are your fellow commuters.
Have you ever taken writing classes or gone to school to study writing? Do you think classes are necessary to become a professional writer?
No, I don’t think courses are necessary. I’ve done a formal writing course through an agency and a number of one-off talks and seminars. The best reason to do courses is to get to know fellow writers (and there is something about completing a course together that bonds you). There is no substitute for support and encouragement from people who understand what you are going through as you push to get your work published. .
Are you a part-time or full-time writer? Do you have a day job? How is your writing affected?
I work full time and think it helps my writing. At work, you are part of a community and get an insight into people’s lives with all of the everyday dramas. You are also surrounded by dialogue and watch the actions people take to achieve their aims. All of this helps to enrich my writing, rather than sitting on my own all day trying to imagine what real people do.
If you could be any book character (other than your own), who would you be and why?
Do I have to pick just one? When I was growing up, I loved the Adventure series of books by Willard Price, where Hal and Roger Hunt take a year out of school to go and collect animals for their father’s zoo. I wanted to be Hal, the adventurous one who can tame mad gorillas. Later, I discovered Thomas Hardy and loved Bathsheba Everdene in Far From the Madding Crowd. She’s a woman in a man’s world and she is not afraid to challenge convention.
What are three books you think everyone should read and why?
I’m not going to tell anyone they should read anything but these are three books I love. I have a collection of Dorothy Parker’s short stories and she is someone who can pack more atmosphere into a couple of sentences than most people can manage in a page. I read her when I need to remind myself of to be brief and let imagination suggest. I’ve already mentioned Far From the Madding Crowd – this is another one I reread because of the perfection of the plotting and the sheer humanity of the characters. Finally, I love poetry and find it acts as a great way of clearing the mind. There is a beautiful book by Christopher Reid, A Scattering, where he writes about the loss of his wife. Joy alternates with tragedy and the collection is a beautiful example of getting images across in exactly the right words.
Do you have any helpful resources for writers that you’d like to share?
The single biggest thing that improved my writing was joining a regular writing group. In UK, you can find local groups here https://www.writers-online.co.uk/writers- groups/ or ask at your local library.
Can we expect more from DI Robyn Bailley in the future?
Yes, I’m around halfway through the first draft of the second book and there will be some more news about that soon. My plan is for a series of books, to follow Robyn through her transition, with new cases to solve each time.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I’m on Twitter @_alexandraclare and always happy to hear comments.
He’s Gone is a publication of Impress Books, and can be purchased on their site. The Metaworker would like to thank Alex Clare for her time, and Sarah Sleath at Impress Books for all of her assistance.